Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe (Fiction — Audio book)

Summer 1999 — the Robert Taylor Homes (aka the Projects) on State Street on the South Side of Chicago. 12-year old Felicia (Fefe) is happy jumping rope on the third floor porch with her three friends: Precious, the daughter of a pastor; Stacia, member of the notorious, gang-affiliated, Buchanan family; and newcomer Tanya, the ultra-timid, obviously neglected daughter of a crackhead on the 10th floor. Everything changes during this fateful summer: The Chicago Housing Authority is demolishing all of the Project buildings on State Street, and theirs is slated to go next; her brother, Meechee, is taken by the police in the middle of the night in a warrantless raid; random gunfire becomes more frequent; and Stacia begins to favor the family business over jumping rope.

Labeled a novel, the story reads like a memoir, and it would be easy to believe that much of the story comes from the author’s personal experience as she was raised in the Robert Taylor Homes in this time period. The writing is excellent (I have no quotes as I listened to it on audio), and the reader is absolutely excellent — perfect pacing, differentiated and consistent voices for the multiple characters, and beautifully timbre in her voice. Told in the first person from Fefe’s perspective, we follow her through that summer and then on through her life for the next twenty years, giving her an opportunity to revisit the turning point that summer was and to get closure on some of the events. It’s a gritty and truthful telling with added introspective commentary as Fefe comes of age in the midst of gangs, police crackdowns, drugs, single mothers on the one hand, and a strong community, loving family, and supportive clergy, teachers, and neighbors on the other. I love the advice she is given, the wide array of people from whom she gets it, and what she does with it. Fefe is a success story — she gets out of the Projects and finds her vocation in helping others — unlike some of the friends she had who do not have some of the same advantages offseting the meanness, cruelty, and unfairness of the environment.

This is a coming-of-age story, not a political treatise. Her conclusion near the very end is that “We are not the originator of our misfortunes — we are all the victims of it.” Her point: people do what they have to do to survive. I would have been a little happier with some ideas on what creates these misfortunes and how everyone — including those who live amidst it — could contribute to making it better.

Thank you to Harper Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 14th, 2022.

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